Essay: Standing firm - belatedly

What if Shimon Peres or Ehud Olmert volunteered to serve as a hostage in Shalit's place?

hillel halkin 88 (photo credit: )
hillel halkin 88
(photo credit: )
Two years ago, at the time of the negotiations for a prisoner exchange for Elhanan Tannenbaum, I wrote a column in which I said I was thankful that it wasn't I who had to make such an agonizing decision. I wrote: "Who am I to condemn Elhanan Tannenbaum to more long years in a Hizbullah dungeon - or, on the contrary, to consign other Israelis to fates like his because his release guarantees that more hostages like him will be taken?" I could just as well have put that in the plural and asked, "Who are we?" Most Israelis would have agreed with me. As I said then, we often criticize our politicians for the decisions they make, but they sometimes have to make decisions that we would never want to have to make ourselves. Still, I think that most of us would also agree today, with the wisdom of hindsight, that trading Elhanan Tannenbaum for 460 Lebanese and Palestinian security prisoners, many with Israeli blood "on their hands," as the expression goes, was a mistake. No one can say of course whether, if Israel had refused to make such a lopsided swap, we now would or wouldn't be facing the abduction of Gilad Shalit. In all likelihood, Shalit would be a hostage in Gaza even if Tannenbaum were still rotting in Lebanon. But there is something we nevertheless can say, and it is this: It is absurd for Israel to have agreed, in 2004, to the terms set by a terrorist organization for the release of a middle-aged man with a shady record who had gotten into trouble entirely through his own carelessness, and then, in 2006, to refuse even to contemplate similar concessions for the release of a 19-year-old soldier who is in difficulty only because he was helping to defend his country. OF COURSE, the Tannenbaum exchange was not the first of its kind. Israel negotiated with and gave in to terrorist organizations holding hostages more than once before Tannenbaum, most notoriously in the 1985 trade with Ahmed Jibril's Popular Front for the Liberation of Palestine, when it bartered 1,150 Palestinian prisoners for three Israeli soldiers. Much of the case for doing the same with Tannenbaum rested on this precedent. And yet there have been other, contradictory precedents too, as when, in 1994, Israel refused to bargain with Hamas over the release of kidnapped Cpl. Nachshon Wachsman and had an army unit storm the house in which he was being kept, resulting in his murder by his captors. Why was Hamas at the time not dealt with as the PFLP was? No coherent answer to this question has ever been given. In this respect, Nachshon Wachsman's mother Esther was perfectly right when she wrote in last Monday's Haaretz about the terrible hypocrisy of official Israeli pronouncements regarding both Wachsman and Shalit. "The government of Israel will not give in to extortion," as Ehud Olmert proclaimed this week, is a stirring phrase, but it is also a hideously hollow one when Israeli governments have given in to extortion repeatedly in the past. One can totally sympathize, too, with the statement by Noam Shalit, Gilad's father, who said this week, "I regret to say that the State of Israel cannot place the restoration of its deterrent power on the shoulders of soldier Gilad Shalit because his shoulders are not that broad…" Who of us would not say the same if he or she were in the place of Noam Shalit, whose behavior, considering the circumstances he is in, has been a model of dignity and restraint? If Gilad Shalit's abductors think they can get hundreds or thousands of their jailed comrades in return for him because that is what Ahmed Jibril got and that is what Hassan Nasrallah got, what fault is it of Gilad's? And if Israel now realizes what a blunder it was, if not to negotiate with terrorists, then certainly to agree to a scale of a hundred-or-more-to-one in exchanging prisoners with them, why should Gilad have to pay the price of it? AND YET in the end, if Israel is to rectify these blunders by making it clear, time after time until it sinks in on the other side, that there will be no repeating them, someone has to pay the price. It would no doubt be much fairer if this were Shimon Peres, who was prime minister of this country when the Jibril deal was struck, or Ehud Olmert, who was deputy prime minister at the time of the Tannenbaum negotiations - and should either of these two men now volunteer to serve as a hostage in Gilad Shalit's place, we would all feel morally uplifted. This is not, however, likely to happen. Prime ministers and ex-prime ministers do not think they are as dispensable as corporals. And so in the end the price will be paid by those who almost always pay it: ordinary people and ordinary soldiers. And as thin as Gilad Shalit's shoulders may be, they are the shoulders on which, if he is still alive when these lines appear in print, the burden rests at the moment. Blundering yet again by once more emptying our jails of hundreds or thousands of convicted terrorists, many of whom will revert to their old habits and some of whom may be involved in kidnapping the next Israeli, for whom they will demand additional hundreds or thousands, is not the best solution for all of us, even if it is the solution we would all want to see if we were Gilad Shalit's family or friends. Soldiers are sent into battle with the knowledge that some of them may die, and as terrible as this knowledge is, we do not flinch from sending them when it is deemed necessary. Gilad Shalit is a soldier. Israel is responsible for him and should do everything it can to free him… everything, that is, that will not be a clear victory for terror. It would have been far better had we made our stand over Elhanan Tannenbaum. But it's also better to make it now than to wait until the next time.